The Old Chain Pier in Brighton

At low tide, some way to the east of Brighton’s brightly lit Palace Pier, can be found a few petrified wooden pilings and stone supports.  These are all that remains of an historic edifice that was once the pride of the city.

When first opened in 1823, the Chain Pier was a revolutionary feat of engineering that became Brighton’s first pier and a fashionable promenade for visitors.  The Pier was the brainchild of Captain Samuel Brown, a pioneering engineer who patented innovative chain suspension bridges and mooring systems for ships. He proposed the pier as a landing point and promenade for the fashionable seaside resort which had grown rapidly after the Prince Regent began visiting Brighton in the late 1700s.

Construction began in 1822. The pier’s suspension design used wrought iron chains stretched from towers on the shore to support a narrow deck extending 1,134 feet out to sea. This was the first major project to use Brown’s metal chain technology in the marine environment.

When the elegant Chain Pier opened in November 1823, it was an immediate success. A crowd of over 30,000 gathered for the opening on 23 November 1823 and there was not a vacant space in the sea as pleasure boats full of seaborne spectators gathered around the pier.     Bands played and in the evening there was a massive firework display.

Such opening pomp made the pier’s final demise all the more wretched.

Tourists and locals flocked to stroll along its length, paying their tuppence and enjoying panoramic views of the broad sweep of shoreline and refreshments from the pier-head pavilion. It was quite different from most piers we’re familiar with today, being only 14 foot wide and standing just 14 foot above high water.

Nevertheless, it was an incredibly popular attraction in its early days. On two Sundays in July 1824 a total of 3,000 visitors passed through the toll gates to enjoy refreshments and buy souvenirs in the tiny shops situated in the towers.  At the shore end, an impressive tollhouse resembled an Egyptian temple. These visitor figures were surpassed on 20 October, 1837, the day Queen Victoria visited to stroll along the pier in the company of Captain Brown. Visitors had exceeded 5,000 by the end of that day.

When the London to Brighton railway began bringing day trippers south in 1841, and prosperity to Brighton, it was hoped that the Pier would also benefit.  However, for many families, the admission price of 2d per person was considered to be too high and the opening of the more modern and much wider West Pier in 1866 took much of the shine from the Chain Pier.  The Aquarium opened in 1872, offering another distraction to Brighton residents and visitors.

The death knell sounded when the Marine Palace and Pier Company was established and given permission to erect a new pier opposite the Old Steine with that permission being granted on condition the old Chain Pier was removed.

By 1896 the novelty had rather worn off and the Pier was mostly deserted on its ageing piles.  A visit by the Borough Engineer to examine the structure resulted in it being declared unsafe and it was closed without ceremony on 9 October, 1896.   Storms had always been the biggest threat to the structure since the fixing supports were made of wood, and although it survived many, the 73-year-old pier finally succumbed to the elements overnight on 4/5 December, 1896.  The great storm smashed sections of the chains, toppling two of the towers into the sea. All that remained standing was a single stark tower anchored to the beach.

Debris from the Old Chain Pier, Brighton
Crowds view the debris following the Pier’s destruction

As if to take its revenge, some of the debris from the Chain Pier damaged parts of the Palace Pier, still under construction.

After souvenir hunters scavenged the beach debris, enough parts remained to be auctioned off and, for some time, the onshore supports, both wooden and concrete, remained, but now there is virtually no trace of the old edifice.  However, its romance and appeal lives on in the memories of the older residents and their offspring.

In 1996, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery hosted an exhibition on the Royal Suspension Chain Pier exhibiting posters, paintings, photographs and souvenirs made from salvaged pieces of the structure.

If you’d like to find out more, our fabulous photographer, Ann Ritchie, has a couple of books from her late Mother’s collection that are available to purchase.  The visual contributions for this article are taken from these:

The Brighton Chain Pier:  In Memoriam, Its History from 1832 to 1896 by John George Bishop

The Romance of The Old Chain Pier at Brighton by Ernest Rynan

To enquire, contact Ann directly on a.ritchie196@gmail.com

Author

  • Maria Bligh

    Maria Bligh is a journalist, published author, professional speaker, singer and artist now settled in Sussex, UK, having previously travelled extensively throughout the UK and overseas, including a period living in Geneva. Married to a successful musician and with a background that encompasses working in the music industry, finance, sales and presentations training, she maintains a diverse existence. Her interests encompass travel, nature, animals and the arts: music, theatre, painting, writing and philosophy. Maria now writes for online and print magazines. Having once maintained a regular full page in “A Place In The Sun” magazine, travel is an obvious interest, but her articles also cover a wide variety of subjects. She bills herself as “an observer of the human condition and all that sail in her.” Maria has frequently appeared on radio & TV as well as in print. Her humorous style has seen her travel the world addressing audiences throughout Europe, Asia and Australasia and as a cruise-ship speaker with P&O and Fred Olsen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *